Telling Stories in Triplicate:Firefighter Deaths in Text, Online and on the Air
Bill Dedman has gone video. A Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative newspaper guy, Bill led an investigation for MSNBC.com that examined the safety record of the emergency alarms that firefighters wear. Dedman's two-part report shows that 15 firefighter deaths involved malfunctioning PASS alarms since 1998. You can read more about the findings in today's Al's Morning Meeting. I wanted to know how Bill found his cyber groove. I not only got that, but Bill used the occasion to deliver a mini-sermon on how newsrooms should not become Al's Morning Meeting-reliant (an idea I endorse).
How did an ink-stained wretch like you start doing multimedia projects for MSNBC?
Who are you calling old?
To me, it's just reporting and storytelling. People expect to get video at MSNBC.com -- it's a strength of the site. So I'm doing what I can to do that.
The way we've worked it out: I work for MSNBC.com, but I'm in Boston, where we have no other employees. So I'm embedded at the NBC affiliate, WHDH, Channel 7. I sit near the investigative reporter, Hank Phillippi Ryan, and producer, Mary Schwager.
It works this way: I share with them what I'm working on, and they either give a thumbs up or thumbs down on whether they're interested -- whether it has a local angle, for example.
We work together on the video interviews, such as the remotes in St. Louis and Washington for this story on firefighters. We arrange those through the NBC affiliates in those cities. We ask questions by speakerphone from Boston, and the person we're interviewing looks at someone in the station there. They feed that tape to Boston by satellite.
Then everbody does what they know how to do.
I write a story for MSNBC.com.
Hank and Mary put together a local package -- a story, I keep calling it-- for their newscast, working with a video editor in Boston.
That same editor -- in this case, Paco Sheehan, who's really phenomenal -- then works with me on our video packages. Mike Brunker, MSNBC.com's projects editor, happened to be in Boston, so he and I sat down with Paco, who rescued us. I wrote my first script, Mike edited it, and Paco made it all work -- with some of the same video he had already used for Hank and Mary's package.
That was 4 1/2 minutes. You can see it at the top of the story online.
Paco and I also cut that down to a shorter package, about two minutes, to be sent to the NBC stations across the U.S. -- to run at their option -- and to MSNBC cable. I have a face for radio, so you probably won't see me doing many standups, but I did do the audio.
The upshot: Channel 7 get a story; MSNBC.com gets video and editing; the affiliates and cable get both.
So, as I said, it's just reporting, but it means doing the storytelling three times.
The hard part is figuring out what to call the consumers. They're readers, viewers and users.
What does online do for your work that print alone cannot?
We can listen to this "man down alarm" for firefighters. We can meet the firefighter's widow, see his funeral, watch water pour out of his equipment in a lab test.
I'm trying to learn how to write to the tape.
If I am correct, this is the first time you have narrated a video piece online. What was that experience like for you and what did you learn?
You could tell, eh?
It's funny, the contrast between a TV reporter's and a print reporter's approach. Hank's delivery drives up your blood pressure, and mine might put you in a coma.
This is an exceptional story that clearly can be localized around the country. What advice would you offer to other journalists looking to follow up on your work?
I'm against localizing stories. I say, don't do it.
Can I write a piece for Poynter called, "Why Al Tompkins, who is a really nice guy, is killing the local newspaper"?
Seriously, I think the TV practice of only going after sure stories has infected newspapers. Instead of editors listening to reporters -- asking them what's going on, editors are starting their day with a cup of coffee and Al's Morning Meeting, and giving marching orders. Why? Because it's safe. If long-haul truckers are peeing in bottles and throwing those by the side of the interstate in Iowa, then they must be doing it in Florida.
The reader ends up getting stories that they've already heard elsewhere, or will soon hear elsewhere.
More personally, what's the fun in localizing someone else's story?
Localizing would be fine if we had unlimited staffs. But every time we do a local version of the latest national teen survey, we've kept the paper or station from breaking news with that reporter that day.
The best journalism is nationalizing the local story. Find out what's happening in your town, and then you'll find that it's happening everywhere, so you get to do the local story and the national story.
And every other poor dumb sonofabitch has to have the editor walk over to the desk the next morning with a copy of Al's Morning Meeting.
There, I got that off my chest. I feel better!